The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake
© 2018 Dr. Steven Novella, Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Burnstein
…wow. Okay, so…back in 2006 I found a weekly podcast that was so consistently good that, even on a dial-up connection, I had no problem spending four or five hours every week downloading it, just for an hour of content. It was The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, hosted by several brothers and a couple of friends, sharing science, skeptic, and tech news, playing games, etc. It often featured scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins as interviewees, and was for a long time my absolute favorite podcast. I still listen to it on a regular basis thirteen years later, and I never had any doubt that I’d buy and read this book. However, I didn’t. Instead, I discovered that there was an audible version…..featuring the primary host of the show, Steven Novella. So I listened to SGU Audible, instead, and — well, it was delightful, and even opens with the SGU theme music. Here’s the short version: The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is the best guide to critical thinking since Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, and even surpasses Sagan as far as depth of content goes. If you’re a regular listener of SGU, there’s added appeal is not only choice of narrator, but the fact that it ends with the entire SGU panel talking about the podcast and the creation of the book.
When this book calls itself “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe”, it’s not kidding. This is not a one-off work to take advantage of the podcast’s popularity, filled with little more than transcripts of old interviews. It’s a fat ol’ book, with a table of contents that runs three pages. It opens with core concepts that everyone should keep in mind, moves to logical fallacies and the like, tackles pseudoscience both historical and contemporary, addresses the media and Hollywood, and — by way of ending — dips into the grim results of persistent irrationality before offering ways to change ourselves and the world. Make no mistake: the target of this Skeptic’s Guide is the reader, and that’s obvious from the very beginning when Novella addresses the frailty of memory, as well as other mental snags like our hyperactive pattern recognition. The skeptical “rogues” as they term themselves are no strangers to mistakes, as Novella shares later on; we all have blind spots. I was also taken with the section on trying to communicate with people; one tactic Novella suggests is finding common ground between the skeptic (on a particular issue) and the believer, or something they both disbelieve in — and trying to find a connection from there. The focus of Novella and company is to find a path to the truth, not prove oneself’s right.
As much as I enjoyed listening to a familiar voice for nigh sixteen hours, framed by familiar music, given the sheer amount of content I find myself wishing now I had read the physical book. For one thing, it’s harder to take notes on an audio book, especially when you’re out doing laps or playing Civilization III. (I was playing Civ3 more often than doing laps, alas.) I’m going to keep my eyes open for a used copy and possibly revisit this one. It’s an excellent resource as well as a fun read, and the panel discussion at the end of the audiobook indicated there are more books on the way. I’m eagerly anticipating them!